Two hundred years ago, criminal behavior was that which was intuitively wrong: murder, robbery, rape, trespass, fraud, etc. But the law has grown expansive and complicated to the point that legal scholars have posited that, on average, Americans unknowingly commit three federal felonies per day. Those complications explain how a Florida fisherman, John Yates, was convicted under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a 2002 statute passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, for allegedly throwing fish back into the sea before authorities could measure them (Rafael A. Mangual, National Review, 3.25.17)While most Americans would agree that such legal overreach is the worst example of public intervention into private lives, it illustrates the conflict of political philosophies which lies at the root of civil disunion today.
The Right has always valued individualism, private enterprise, freedom of expression, and entrepreneurial spirit, all of which have provided the energy and the foundation for American liberal democracy. They have accepted the excesses of such a laissez-faire society – social and economic inequality; a no-holds-barred, brutal, dismissive marketplace; and a might-is-right foreign policy – as necessary concomitants of a political philosophy which ultimately raises all boats and projects right and justice.
Human nature is the engine of such enterprise, the Right contends. We are all territorial, self-interested, aggressive, and self-protective; and no matter how many critics may wish to deny what history has shown to be ineluctable facts, they cannot deny history or deter its momentum.
The Left has insisted that man and societies are indeed perfectible. Human nature may be consistent and innate, but by no means insuperable. The human communitarian spirit of Christian charity and goodness also cannot be denied.
Thomas Jefferson understood the need for both when he wrote “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Such pursuit he went on to explain did not refer to selfish pleasures, but achieving individual satisfaction within the context of community.
It was not enough to respect the will of others, he wrote, but to act with community interests in mind and at the foremost. The nation was built on individualism and personal enterprise; but it could never prosper let alone survive on this alone. There had to be a balance between the God-given right of personal and economic expression and the Christian respect for community.
The Gospel of John was particularly relevant in this regard. The new Christian community could never survive unless it maintained an absolute solidarity. There could be no diversion from the principle values of the new faith nor apostasy. Individual desires for the Kingdom of Heaven were no different from the new movement which purported to spread the ‘good news’ about Jesus Christ and salvation.
So how have the Johannine interpretation of community and the Jeffersonian model of individualism within a social context gotten so distorted? How is it that the State has arrogated to itself so much patriarchal power? How is it that citizens have willingly given up so much individual sovereignty into the hands of so few?
Christ in the Synoptic Gospels echoes a similar sentiment. Mosaic Law was not wrong, he said; but it has been twisted and replaced by meaningless sacrifice and ritual. He, like Jefferson, would be sorely disappointed at the almost total ignorance of the essence and meaning of law and justice.
The Trump populist revolution is all about ‘enough!”. The interventions of the State into private, personal, and intimate affairs has gone far beyond the suggested parameters of the Founding Fathers. Slowly, but progressively and seemingly ineluctably, the lives of individual private citizens have become matter of public dominion.
A colleague of mine took his summer vacations in Italy in the early 90s and took his children bathing at Lake Trasimeno. Italian traghetti, ferries between the islands and the mainland plied the Lake and made frequent stops, tying up at local piers for a few minutes to load and unload passengers. Before the boat arrived and immediately after it left, young Italian boys dived off the pier and rode the waves generated by its motors. Occasionally a carabinieri would come by and wave the boys off; but the warning was desultory and admiring.
Back in the United States, recounted my colleague, he took his children to the local public pool. There, lifeguards enforced every rule to the letter – No Running, No Horseplay, No Food, No Jumping, No Diving. It was a summertime gulag of total enforcement.
Yes, parents said, but surely the lifeguards saved lives. Such impositions were necessary if not essential to public well-being.
My colleague also mentioned how he noticed the strict traffic rules in the United States– strict adherence to the speed limit, rules of the road, and parking regulations – so different from Italy where drivers were on their own, pedestrians made do, and life went on.
“The United States is a more evolved society”, said one social commentator. In complex, diverse societies, it is only the law and its regulations which can provide the framework for right behavior. Italy has yet to learn this lesson.
If this is true – and such an ‘if’ is a big supposition – then where does such legalism stop? At what point does government paternalism become oppressive and inhibiting of individual expression?
Why indeed? Paternalism is precisely the issue.
Yet the State has taken its charge far too seriously, and it is those very laws which now inhibit our freedom. Government has overreached, and freedom of choice – the fundamental principle behind all others, has become more and more limited. Every aspect of our lives is regulated. Economic and financial activity, education, transport, social community and preference, sexuality, and religion all come under State scrutiny and in the name of civil protection, more and more regulation is added to an already long list.
It is not a free country when your car, your house, your school, your church, and your work all fall under the authority of the State. One may have the ‘freedom’ to choose among alternatives, but since they are all regulated and in one way or another determined by the State, the ‘freedom’ is fictive.
Laws to promote equality, while in principle important for assuring the extension of rights to all citizens, have also eroded personal freedoms. The legalization of gay marriage, favoring what many Christians consider a Biblical ‘abomination’, has infuriated many. Instead of guaranteeing all legal rights through civil contract, the State has determined that only marriage will do.
The protection of gay and women’s rights – important and required by law – has become an Anschluss in universities, offices, and public institutions. A culture of victimhood has replaced true respect. The fight between individuals and their enterprises constrained by law and the demands of newly-empowered sub-groups have created an atmosphere of divisiveness and hostility. Affirmative action, now finally in its death throes stepped on the freedoms of some to supposedly promote the freedoms of others.
Since 9/11 the State has been increasingly invasive of individual privacy. In addition to universal regulation, government now seeks to widen the net even further. While one in principle has freedom of speech, one wrong word on the Internet can lead to investigation, detention, and arrest.
The Trump populist revolution seeks to roll back such government interventionism. What many think is simply a reversion to Ronald Reagan’s “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem” homily, are mistaken. Trumpists not only want to force the retraction of government arms, eyes, ears, and hands from private affairs; they want to restructure the way American society operates.
Populists reject the notion of government paternalism and are willing to take the risks of individualism. Nothing is worth oppressive regulation of and intrusion into the affairs of private citizens.
Is there any value to civil laws and monitoring of individual behavior? Of course. A police and immigration force are required. Some environmental provisions make sense. Additional inclusiveness under civil rights protection is advised.
Yet, the tendency of government is to overreach, to overstep its bounds, to tread where it is unwanted. No one said that inclusivity meant a codified, absolute, right to homosexual marriage or abortion. Who ever said that minority rights trumped the right to free speech and assembly?
Ivan Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov) argued for theocracy. What better way to control anti-social elements of society than by proscribing crime because of moral dereliction and guilt? There would be little crime if perpetrators felt they were sinning against God and just defying Man.
In other words, there would be no need for a secular authority to impose its arbitrary in invasive regulations if a moral authority were indwelling and innate. The individual would police his own actions thanks to adherence to a higher principle.
The point is that there are no such things as ‘inalienable rights’, for even in the supposedly freest country in the world – the United States – freedom is little more than a vain promise. Every citizen’s ‘freedom’ is limited by the State and by powerful commercial-political alliances. Capitalism which does indeed allow people to go from rags to riches, also assures the almost permanent immobility of large proportions of the population.
Thomas Jefferson’s aspirational quote is well-known:
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.What Jefferson did not know – and could not have known – was that ‘the law’ would be transformed from a narrow institution of government into a universal legal-corporate-economic-social hydra.
The Left’s assumption today is that the individual cannot be trusted to act responsibly or in the interest of the Republic. Especially in a complex, diverse society, he will be increasingly flummoxed by the bevy of moral and ethical choices confronting him. Only the State can act on his behalf and that of his colleagues and fellow-citizens – i.e. the collectivity that is America.
Populists loudly disagree. Who better to make decisions about morality, family, life, and sexuality than the family and the individuals within it? How can government, or any supra-national entity, ever presume to speak for individual citizens.
There is a private sector of ideas, principles, and morality in the United States and in any society; and issues will get thrashed about within it. Common values will remain standing. There is no need for a partial overlord.
Whatever comes of the Trump Administration, populism will not go back underground. The genie is out of the bottle and cannot be ignored. Individualism, the principle tenet of the 19th century, eroded during the 20th, will have to be reckoned with.
Progressive liberalism, statism, and government patriarchy are finished.